Hundreds of children have died already, victims of the deadly dust produced by a gold rush in an impoverished part of Nigeria.
Kula cannot remember exactly when her brother and son brought the grinder home, but its impact was immediate: The family’s income more than tripled, as they pulverized locally mined rock into dust that could be searched for gold.
To these isolated and impoverished settlements in a hardscrabble region of northwestern Nigeria, the noisy electric grinders brought a windfall—as well as unimaginable horror. The same dust that contained gold was rich with lead, an easily absorbed toxin that has killed at least 400 children this year, including 67 from the village of Dareta alone.
One of them was Kula’s grandson.
“The boy was from God, so God can take him,” 40-year-old Kula told me when I journeyed to Dareta recently. The weathered grandmother of 20 said the money from the grinding—as much as $100 a week, compared to $300 a year for farming—was impossible to turn down.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 40 villages in Nigeria’s Zamfara state are contaminated by lead; health experts say they have never before seen such dangerous concentrations in inhabited areas. If ground water is also compromised, the World Health Organization warns, the threat will be even harder to mitigate.
At least 30,000 people are at risk from lead exposure, according to Blacksmith Institute, a New York-based NGO that cleans up toxic sites, including the sites in Zamfara, where the company found lead levels more than 200 times higher than what’s considered acceptable in residential areas of the U.S. Cleaning these villages will require the removal of six inches of topsoil and a temporary ban on subsistence farming, the NGO says.
Simba Tirima, an environmental engineer with Idaho-based TerraGraphics Environmental Engineering, which is cleaning up the affected villages using local labor and hand tools because the roads are too eroded to bring in the usual heavy equipment, says this is the most intensely contaminated soil the company has found outside industrial sites. “We have not seen blood lead like this—never.”
Children under 5 are especially susceptible to lead poisoning, which compromises the kidneys, blood, and brain, and can cause mental retardation, behavioral problems, blindness, and even death, if untreated. In adults, lead overload can lead to miscarriages and birth defects, as well as sterility.
Medecins Sans Frontieres, which discovered the lead epidemic this spring, has set up medical centers outside the affected areas to treat hundreds of victims. When started early enough, treatment can be effective. But in Nigeria it’s taking longer than it should because logistics are so difficult—four-by-four vehicles and funding are hard to come by, and the state health agency is already coping with a ferocious cholera epidemic and regular polio immunizations.
Artisanal mining, as it’s called here, is back-breaking, dangerous work. With a rope tied around their waist, men lower themselves 20, 40 or even 70 feet below the surface to chip away at mineral-rich rock, sending it up in buckets. The holes are usually about six feet wide and very dark, and every year, miners die when tunnels collapse.
Cleaning up just the first half-dozen settlements will cost at least $4 million, according to Blacksmith and TerraGraphics, a figure that is likely to rise as more villages are surveyed for contamination. The U.N. office for humanitarian response recently released $2 million in emergency funds for WHO and Unicef to use in Zamfara.
Dr. Saadu Idris, the Zamfara health commissioner, recently told aid agencies that even in recently cleaned areas, miners are starting to dig again, and warned grinding won’t be far behind. “If this is allowed to continue, even more children will die,” he said.
When children began to spike fevers, vomit, and shake uncontrollably, people at first thought it was “flying spirits,” says Mohamad Bello, a religious elder in Dareta. Although they now realize that mining is the source of the lead poisoning, the miners themselves are the most vehement opponents of the ban.
“I used to earn [$8 a day] or sometimes more, but I haven’t earned anything” in the last three months, said lifelong miner Lawli Kafi, from the lead-saturated Abare village. Without work, the muscular 45-year-old has been doing a little farming and a little repair, but says he has been forced to borrow money from his brother to feed nine children.
Earlier this year, the government imposed a ban on all mining and grinding, but miners are returning to the tunnels, and grinding is coming back. To people in Zamfara state, grinding gold ore is like growing opium poppies to an Afghan farmer.
“Mining is their bread and butter—they don’t want to just leave it and go on to something else,” said Naureen Naqvi, who handles community education and outreach for Unicef in Zamfara. She added: “There is nothing else.”
Betsy Pisik is a freelance reporter based at the United Nations in New York. She has reported on security, health and development for a variety of publications from Afghanistan, Iraq, the DRC, Ethiopia, Syria, and the Middle East. She is a fellow at the International Reporting Project in Washington, D.C.